We left Irkutsk about midday, after doing the Tony – Leon tyre switcheroo, chatting with Andreas and Claudia the Germans, taking Leon to the local auto parts / tools market (Leon had had almost everything stolen on his trip over .. tools, phone, you name it), and checking on the status of Hannes’ new shock absorber. Stas, the captain of the bike club, returned just before midday and we said our goodbyes and hit the road north.
The road to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal was a good one, sealed most of the way. My only concerns related to the new off road tyres I had fitted in Irkutsk. They were squidgy on the asphalt compared to the Mefo’s I had left behind in Irkutsk (to collect on the way back) and took quite a bit of getting used to.
Initially I had planned just to head north to Zhigalovo for the first days ride, but 10km before the turnoff to Olkhon, I had a change of heart. Tony had always wanted to see Baikal in general, and having seen Baikal 3 times in the past I was keen to see Olkhon Island, which I hadnt seen before. Besides, what would the Sibirsky Extreme project be without a trip to the sacred Olkhon Island … a travel destination / pilgrimmage many Russians dream of making.
And so we turned off the road north and headed for the ferry to Olkhon Island. As we didnt know about fuel on the island we filled up in the last major town before the island and sped on to catch the ferry with seconds to spare.
25 miles of dirt road later and we had made it to Khuzhir, the main town on the island. I wanted to see Shaman Rock, the most sacred site on Lake Baikal for the local Buryats.
We found a guesthouse soon after (thanks to the local internet cafe – complete with one computer) and headed out for dinner … only to find Tony now had a flat tyre. His front. I zipped around town asking for directions to a Shinomontazh and ended up at the closed gates of a house a few hundred yards off the main street. I yelled across the fence and eventually a guy emerged asking what do I want. “do you do shino-montazh?” I asked.
“maybe” was the reply, that might as well have included the line “who’s asking?”. I explained that my english colleague had a flat tyre and we just needed to get it vulcanised. Eventually he relented and said “ok, where is he?”
I zoomed back to the main street to fetch Tony, led him to Anatoly, the local tyre guru, and then back to our guesthouse to get a couple more tools for removing Tony’s front wheel. When I returned to Anatoly’s, a tall german guy was talking to Tony … this was yet another cyclist he had met on the ride across Siberia. Tony stopped and talked to 3 cyclists on his way over, he had now re-met two of them. Anatoly fixed Tony’s wafer thin front tube and sent us on our way for 100 rubles (2 quid).
We headed off to a local Buryat cafe for dinner, beer and then home. Our home for the night was an outdoor room about the size of a large garden shed. The guy who owned it had built 3 or 4 in his back garden and rented them out.
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I woke at 7:30 … we had told the lady of the house last night that we wanted breakfast at 8. It was pissing down rain. I wanted to try and catch her to postpone breakfast, but it was too late. She had already cooked our pancakes. I woke Tony and told him if he wants breakfast its time to get up. As we ate our Olkhon Island special breakfast of pancakes, cottage cheese and tea, the sky slowly lightened. By the end of breakfast the rain had stopped.
I needed to back up some data onto a portable hard drive, and told Tony to go on ahead to the one terminal internet cafe. No point us bother being there at the same time if there is only one terminal – and he packed up his bike and rode off.
Half and hour later, once I had packed up my gear and loaded the bike I rode down to the internet hut, to find Tony chatting to a couple of Australian retired couples, driving across Russia in 4x4s. I said my “g’days” and was offered a vegemite on vita-wheat biscuit … something I havent had in years. The internet was super slow and was occupied by a german guy uploading squillions of fotos, so Tony and I decided to forget about it and head off – I could upload the text by phone and the pics would have to wait. It was well after 12pm when we got going.
We arrived back at the ferry and were loaded on within 5 minutes. Not quite as quick as the way out, but the Australians said they waited 3 hours for a boat – so we should consider ourselves lucky – again. We headed for Bayanday, the turnoff point for driving to Olkhon, at at a road detour, Tony clipped a barrier with his hard luggage (not sure he would have had a problem with soft luggage and the bike fell on top of him. I was beaten to his rescue by three car loads of Russians, who lifted the bike up off Tony’s leg … and on to his ankle …ouch!
Anyway, I told him to be a man about it, rub some smelly ointment on it when we stop in at Bayanday 70km down the road, and he should be fine for a 100 metre dash tomorrow. And he did just that.
Bayanday was our lunch and fuel stop. Tony rubbed the goop onto his leg after our lunch of lagman soup and a chebureki each. We powered on after our late lunch and made Kuchug, in the pouring rain, by 5pm. I pulled into a shelter and decided to wait out the rain. Tony and I took advantage of the break by doing some minor repairs to the bike. We were of course approached by Kuchug’s finest assorted drunk locals … we pretended to speak no Russian. Kuchug was also our first sighting of the mighty river Lena … not so mighty yet, as we are right near its headwaters.
By 6pm we were underway again – the rain had stopped, at least the heavy rain. I wanted to make Zhigalovo for the night. The asphalt road stopped at Kuchug and it was 140 km of dirt road to Zhigalovo. The road followed the Lena and for much of the way it was a high speed dirt road with red cliffs on the right and the Lena on the left. The villages in this stretch were exceptionally pretty and traditional. Many of the villages from Kachug down all date from 1600 – 1650 … the great Cossack populating of Siberia.
It was about 7:30 when we arrived in Zhigalovo, and I followed signs to the “Hotel California” on the outskirts of town. Tony waited while I checked the place out. The skanky girl at reception said it was 500 rubles a night… for the room. Cheap. I asked to have a look at a room. She took me into a room, and it was uncleaned, with empty vodka bottles littered about. I asked to see another. She went downstairs and woke the ‘administrator’ … he was totally dishelvelled and reeked of booze. I went outside and spoke to Tony … suggesting we look for another place. Some locals said their was another guest house in the centre of town, right behind the Lenin Statue – cant get much more central than the Lenin Statue in a Russian town.
We found the central place, it was clean and run by a sober woman. It was twice the price but was worth it. And she had a yard for parking. We unloaded, and went out to look for a cafe. By now it was pissing down rain again. We failed to find a cafe so went to the general store on Lenin’s left. There we bought beer and instant noodles … all the dinner we needed.
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No breakfast demands meant we slept in quite late – finally stirring about 9:30am. Tony needed to do some metal repairs on his side box … the attaching points had become a little bent in his fall yesterday. He found a vice and went about squeezing them back into shape. The weather was still overcast.
I had been fantasizing about a combination of dirt roads and dry weather … it was something I hadnt seen since Kirgizia / Tajikistan. In general, it had been raining either partially or completely every day since hooking up with Tony. We were probably lucky the dirt roads were not more of a nightmare, considering all of the rain. I have always thought the chances of reaching the ultimate objectives of this trip are totally weather dependent. If we have good weather, the tracks I hope to try will be possible. A lot of rain and the picture changes. So far we have been unlucky, but have managed to struggle thru.
We stopped on the edge of town to refuel the bikes and ourselves … a surprisingly unsatisfying brunch today. Crap cafe. No cute serving girls, and grim food. It was 12:30 by the time we got underway … and we had a big day ahead. The pressure would be on. We were trying to ride from Zhigalovo to the BAM.
Most maps dont even have a road, but one detailed map I had showed a road, and the chat with Artyom in the Bike Club in Irkutsk a few days back confirmed that there was a road, and it was possible to get from Zhigalovo to the BAM. We were lucky to meet him… none of the Irkutsk bikers knew there was a road from Zhigalovo to the BAM, meaning none of the locals had ridden it. Artyom was one of very few bikers (or maybe the only one) who knew there was a rideable road there.
We crossed a pontoon bridge to the start of the “Zhigalovo Road” and were now in a map free zone. The sun was now out, and the road was pretty much dry. The first dry dirt road I had ridden since the the first 30 minutes with Tony back in the Altai. As a result we flew along it. At one muddy stretch I took a detour off to the side of the road and saw the unmistakeable tracks of Artyom’s Africa Twin. He had ridden here 4 days ago on his way home to Bodaibo. Artyom had driven the road before, but this was the first time he had ridden it on a bike.
Tony had mentioned that as an Englishman, he was not used to such long dirt stretches. He used to be in the rally scene (back in the days of steam engines I suspect) and was saying he cant remember a special stage of more that 25 miles in the dirt .. and here we were doing about 200 miles between villages in the dirt. So 25 miles from the end of this 200 mile “special” I stopped to wait for Tony … after waiting 5 minutes with no sign of his headlight, I decided I better check out whats up.
I drove back 17 kilometres before I saw him … he had slid off on a corner. But a passing Kamaz all wheel drive bus had picked him up and all was normal. We continued on and finally reached the village of Okunausky … and the BAM railroad. We had done the Zhigalovo Road. We had made it to the BAM!!
We turned left and made the more major town of Magistralny, where we refuelled the bikes and found a railway canteen. Dinner for two in the railway canteen came to 70 EUR cents. It was after 6pm but seriously hot … must be about 30 degrees. Warmest weather for ages. I contemplated taking off my vest as we rode off, heading for Ust Kut 170 km away.
The first 50 km out of Magistralny was a breeze, but there were dark clouds brewing ahead. In the distance lightning was flashing and the temperature was dropping fast. I stopped to put on my windproof fleece. The dirt road was becoming wet. Argghh ! Rain had recently been here. before long we caught up with the rain. Just as I thought we would have our first rain free day on the dirt. It was tolerable until we his a section of roadworks near Zvezdny. We were now only 50 km from Ust-Kut but the road was a nightmare. Deep and long stretches of mud bogs had cars stuck on the road, unable to go forwards or backwards. Tony and I plotted our own routes thru the bog and both made it clear, eventually, but the relief must have been too much for Tony as he went down in a much smaller muddy section a few hundred yards later. I returned to pick him up, showing my reluctance, and Tony just shrugged his shoulders.
I really admire the old guys balls. He is out here in Siberia …. not just riding across Russia or Siberia on the main road, but riding unchartered roads in Siberia. And he doesnt let the tough stuff faze him. His stiff upper lip and pluck is really admirable. He doesnt complain or moan. He has had a few falls in the last 2 days and a decent collection of bruises, but he just gets on with it. Class act. Must come from the half a million motorcycle miles he has under his belt already!.
Soon afterwards we met the Lena River again. We are getting familiar with it and will only get more familiar over the coming days. I have decided from now on, I will call her “Lenochka” .. a familiar form of Lena. This meant we were only a few dozen miles from Ust-Kut.
We pulled into Ust Kut and crossed the last bridge across the Lena … there are no more bridges at all for the remaining 3700 km (2300 miles) of its length. We needed a jet wash … but it was almost 10pm by now. I didnt like the idea of trying to check into a hotel totally covered in mud and with luggage that was totally covered in mud.
I saw a policeman and stopped to ask him where I might find a car wash. He immediately responded by asking me for my documents. “What an asshole” I thought. Cops almost always help when you approach them, rather than when they approach you. It was like he was taking advantage of me by asking for documents when I had asked him for help. It was poor sportsmanship! The game of driver vs cop has rules in Russia … and this was against the rules.
I broke off the conversation after showing him the docs and asked for the centre of town. “That way” he said – Ust Kut is 40 km long – stretched out along Lenochka. We zoomed off and found the railway station and a hotel … the Hotel Lena … flashest hotel in town. They had no parking and I was frowned upon as I walked across the lobby in my muddy riding gear. but I got a room and returned to Tony and the bikes to begin unpacking.
As I unpacked I was bitching away to Tony about the cop, and how I felt he had broken the ettiquette rules by asking for documents when I had approached him, when Tony replied “Well here he is again”. And I looked up and the cop was there outside the hotel with his colleague, waiting to meet us. Lucky he didnt speak english!
As if to make a monkey out of me, he then invites us back to use the police jet wash. Wow … fine … done! We follwed him back to the station and parked up in the courtyard. Tony and I used the jet washer for a good 20 minutes each … and there was still mud coming off the bikes even then. We jet washed each other … from the knees down tho Tony needed a bit more after his falls. I blasted his back and sides. When we had finished, the police (Andrei and Andrei) offered to house the bikes in the police garage (we had nothing at the hotel and would have had to take every piece of baggage up to the room.)
The police also asked how many bears we had seen on our route up from Zhigalovo. None, i replied, should we have seen any? Aparently yes, this was bear coumtry
So it turns out I was completely wrong in my initial assessment – the police were excellent guys, very friendly and helpful. They told us to come back the next morning and they would help us sort out a ferry to Lensk. Top guys !